Drones Tech Digest - April 2017

4G LTE network suitable for drones

Qualcomm, a chip manufacturer, has been testing drones on commercial 4G LTE cellular networks. The test to assess the network’s capability to service low-altitude (up to 400 feet above ground) drones involved carrying out 1000 flights. Qualcomm says the study results showed that existing commercial LTE networks can support safe drone operation in non-line of sight (NLOS) real-world environments at those altitudes. The main findings were: drones having strong signal availability at higher altitudes even where antennae are downtilted in the network, seamless handover between base stations, lower frequency of needed handover events, and comparable coverage to ground mobile devices. This was a limited trial involving a small number of drones using the network. When drone numbers increase Qualcomm envisages a requirement for interference mitigation, power control optimisation and serving cell selection optimisation to effectively service them with LTE.

Using a headset to fly a drone

DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturer, has announced a pair of goggles designed for first-person view (FPV) flying of its drones with head tracking tech that enables users to control the drone’s movement with their head. The DJI Goggles are in a head mounted display that acts like a VR headset by immersing the user in the drone mounted camera’s live feed. The user can control the drone through head movement, for example tilting the head to right would yaw the drone to the right. The goggles’ screens have a 1280x1440 pixel resolution. DJI says the goggles have a frame rate of 60fps at 720p resolution (or 30fps at 1080p resolution), 360-degree coverage, 110ms latency (at best), and a six-hour battery life. 

Citywide drone delivery service

Airbus has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) which would allow Airbus Helicopters to test drone parcel delivery on the National University of Singapore’s campus in mid-2017. The aim of the project is to prove to authorities that drones can operate safely in urban environments, and to test their effectiveness as a goods transport system. This project, named Skyways, would use a drone traffic control system that sees drones flying safely through physical tubes that connect pick-up and drop-off stations. At the drop-off points – located around the campus and connecting dock – the drone autonomously unloads its payload. The parcel’s recipient would then receive a smartphone notification informing them that their delivery has arrived. 
Airbus states that it has no intention of competing with Amazon, DHL and related logistics companies, but sees them as potential customers. 

No crash zone

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and partners Northrop Grumman, an American aerospace and defence company, and ACSS, an aviation company, have announced the results of test flights incorporating sense-and-avoid avionics systems for unmanned aerial systems (UASs). The Mojave Desert testing of the anti-collision algorithm designed by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Johns Hopkins University validated simulation models and provided more data to further develop the ACAS Xu collision avoidance system. A spokesman for the FAA’s ACAS Xu project said that the system for large UAVs should be able to detect and avoid collisions substantially better than a human pilot. 

Coupling drones

IBM has filed a patent for in-flight transfer of packages between aerial drones. The concept is for delivery drones to have a movable plate on their underside where the package would be held by a pole tipped with an electromagnetic coupling device. On the top of the drone would be a pivot arm with a docking mechanism. A package would be attached to the drone and sent. Around the mid-journey point the drone would be met by another drone. They would then magnetically lock to each other. Once locked the drones would tilt on their axis to allow the tethered package to slide along the docking arms to the receiving drone where its magnetic undercarriage attracts the package, locking it securely to the drone. After this the drones would decouple and continue on their individual ways. 

CICADA network

The US Navy has tested CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) drones that could act as a low-cost mass deployed sensor network. The small drones are really gliders, having no propulsion system, and as such need to be deployed from another vehicle like an aircraft or balloon. The body of the drone carries a 5Hz GPS receiver and a two-axis gyroscope for location tracking and autopilot, as well as a lithium battery. After release from the transporter vehicle the drones can glide down to a predefined location with an average landing error of fifteen feet from the commanded location. The frame can have a wide array of sensors attached.  

Shipping in the air 

American drone company Natilus is developing an autonomous drone that is intended to act as a transoceanic freight carrier. The fixed wing drone would take off and land on water. After travelling at a cruising altitude of 20,000 feet it would land several miles from the destination port’s shore and be taxied into the dock for unloading. The company claims that the drone would be 50% cheaper on a route from Los Angeles to Shanghai than using an aeroplane (USD130,000 compared USD260,000), carrying 200,000lbs load. Natilus also says it would be quicker than traditional sea cargo ships which would take three weeks compared to the Nutilus’ 30 hours (17 times faster). News reports suggest that such drones could be flying commercially soon after 2020, but that at present the idea is at the stage of a 30-foot-long prototype.

Uber Elevate update

Uber has released more information on its Elevate project that aims to set up a system of flying taxis. At the Uber Elevate summit the ride-sharing company announced partnerships with several companies. Hillwood Properties in Texas and Dubai Holdings in the UAE are helping Uber find locations for ‘vertiports’ – like helipads for the flying taxis – and eventually to build them. Another company is Chargepoint that will design, develop and deploy the infrastructure needed to charge the taxis. Uber also revealed partnerships with five companies working on electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles. 

DoCoMo drone display

NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese telco, has demonstrated a drone with an LED spherical display. The device consists of a spherical frame mounted to the top of the drone, within this is a frame holding eight vertically arranged LED strips. The LED sphere rotates on its axis. This movement creates an after-image effect making the spherical display appear static. The whole is similar to the concept of the Mutoscope which could be turned and the illusion of movement created. NTT Docomo sees the display being used on flying drones to spread advertisements, in performances, to display information, etc. 

Drones used to create novel structure

At the latest iteration of the yearly ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion at the University of Stuttgart, drones and robots have been used to weave a latticework of glass and carbon fibre-reinforced composites. The light weight yet strong materials open up the opportunity to create novel fabrication techniques. The building was constructed using two stationary robotic arms placed either end of the structure that were used to wind the fibre – a process that requires high mechanical strength and precision. The fibre was then stretched across the mainframe of the building by two drones.  Sensors allowed the robots and drones to coordinate their work in real time to adapt to changing conditions. The drones were autonomous. The pavilion used a total of 184 kilometres of resin-impregnated glass and carbon fibre. 

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